The Military Just Took a Big Step Towards Protecting LGBT Soldiers

June 9th 2015

Sarah Gray

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter took a huge step towards protecting lesbian, gay and bisexual members of the U.S. Armed Forces. In a speech made during a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Pride Month event, Carter announced that the DoD will update the Military Equal Opportunity Policy to protect members of the armed services from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

“We have to focus relentlessly on the mission, which means the thing that matters most about a person is what they can contribute to it,” Carter said during his speech.

"The policy identifies certain classes of people who should be protected from discrimination that prevents them from rising to the highest levels possible," the Huffington Post explains. The updated policy will mean that along with race, sex, color, religion, age, or national origin, personnel cannot be discriminated against based on sexual orientation.

"Discrimination of any kind has no place in America's armed forces," Carter stated. "Young Americans today are more diverse and tolerant than past generations. It's the only way to compete in the 21st century."

The policy update comes nearly four years after the 2011 repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," a policy which kept LGB service members closeted, and barred those who were openly gay, lesbian or bisexual from joining the military.

While this is a huge step towards eliminating discrimination in our armed forces, the speech and subsequent panel did not mention an important aspect of discrimination in the military: the ban on transgender service members.

"On September 20, 2011, the military policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) ended, allowing gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members to serve openly. Yet, military medical policies still exclude transgender people from serving openly in the US armed forces," a 2014 report from the Williams Institute report states. "These medical policies lay out exclusions for what are deemed to be 'psychosexual disorders,' including transsexualism, cross-dressing, or a history of gender transition."

There are currently an estimated 15,500 active duty transgender service members forced to live in secret, according to the Williams Institute. It is also estimated that there are around 134,300 transgender veterans, including the highest-ranking transgender veteran in the country, Sheri Swokowski, who was present during Carter's speech. (She was dressed in a male service uniform, but presented as female.)  

"I just want to be a visible symbol for those out there that are forced to, I won't say lie, but not be authentic in order to serve the country that they love," Swokowski told the Huffington Post.​

There are small steps underway to address the treatment of transgender troops in the military. On Friday, June 5, the U.S. Air Force announced new procedures to determine, what the Washington Post calls, "continued employment of transgender service members." The decision mirrors a similar policy change made by the U.S. Army back in March of this year.

Though the new policy does not update the actual rules towards "involuntary separation of gender dysphoric Airmen" it does create a consistent application of the policy. Henceforth, all decisions to potentially dismiss transgender service members or those diagnosed with gender dysphoria will go to the Air Force Review Boards Agency, rather than have some cases handled by commanders in the field.

"Identification as transgender, absent a record of poor duty performance, misconduct, or a medically disqualifying condition, is not a basis for involuntary separation," read a statement from the Air Force.

And though transgender rights were not addressed in Carter's speech, the Washington Post reports that Secretary of Defense has previously suggested he was open to allowing transgender personnel to serve openly.